A Story Problem

I was never a big fan of the Math. I understand how it gives one the tools to grasp concepts and practice with logical thinking blah, blah, blah. In fact, the ugly little secret is that I used to excel at math and to this day, if pressed, can make some numbers add up in my head. I was lost at Geometry as a sophomore in high school. I wasn’t confused by geometry. I was irritated by it. Let’s be straight – not the kind of irritation that a brooding genius who saw five moves ahead in life may have experienced. My irritation may have come from not wanting to do this and having the learning process take up too much time. Here’s an example. My recollection of geometry was that we would learn something, then a theorem would be introduced to show how it could be done easier. Why not just cough up the theorem in the beginning. You see, I was a busy kid trying to figure out how to best feather my hair in the middle and how much that pimple needed to be dealt with before it became worse than when I started the poking and prodding.

In 1982 we were starting to be able to use calculators for certain things in chemistry. Why did I need to learn geometry? I bowed out after geometry so as to make certain I wouldn’t have to deal with calculus. If the calculator can have shortcuts built-in and allowed in the class, why not go the next step and mirror the real world experience. Maybe it would be ok for me to not only use the calculator, but to pay a person (maybe a kid, maybe not) who could operate my calculator (and when I say pay, I mean trade). I was no genius, but I decided at fifteen, that whatever I did in my life that was going to involve anything like designing a new high resistant polymer or building fuel cells for a space station, I would hire people with really big calculators to do the math. You see, math did not interest me. Some would argue that a teenager doesn’t really know what they like or dislike, and they may sadly reflect upon their youth and long for the knowledge of sine and cosine. I’m here to say, for the public record, that I believe the number of kids not interested in higher level math as teenagers, then discovering they missed out on something, and wanting to get back and learn more math – those numbers are very, very, very small. I’ve commissioned a couple of statisticians to put the numbers together for me.

However, I’ve always enjoyed a good story problem. Mainly because it was the closest thing to some kind of practical use of math. The thing story problems couldn’t do was add any human element to the mix.  For example, Don is a semi driver. He has to pick up a load in Memphis, TN and deliver it to New York, NY. The trip is 1113 miles and his average speed is 60 miles per hour. It takes 1 hour to unload the semi trailer.  How long will it take him to get there and unload? Sound like the answer should be 19.55? The problem is that the driver can only drive 10 hours in a day. Fair enough, that was tricky. You should have been given that information. So, would the new answer be 24 + 10.55? Well, I guess I also forgot to mention that on day two Don’s A.C. went out and he decided to stop and get that fixed in Winston-Salem, NC. Wait a second, why’s he in Winston-Salem? Oh, I forgot to mention that he took 85 to 77 because he wanted to not go through the scales in Bristol (on 81) because he’s a little overweight. I should also mention that the dock guy at the destination is an SOB and he’ll probably make him wait an extra 5 hours just because he can. But I think you get my point.

So when I received the phone call today from the mechanic working on my transmission and he started presenting me with my very own real life story problem, I was happy that I opted out of as much math as I could at the high school level. Knowing how people work will always get you farther than knowing how numbers work. My story problem went like this:

You have a 2002 Mazda MPV with a burned up transmission. You have looked online and find that there is information about MPV’s transmissions dying under 90k miles. This is not to be used as solid information since many more people have not complained about their MPV transmissions. Current Kelly Blue Book value is around $6500. The cost for a totally rebuilt transmission is going to be around $4500. The cost for a used transmission with 83k miles is going to be $2500 (2000 fewer miles than the burned up transmission). You hope to get another 4 years out of the Mini-van. You average 15k miles per year. So, you’ll be adding 60k miles to a transmission with 83k. Please remember that the 83k transmission has a 6 month warranty. Also remember that the 83k transmission didn’t come to the salvage (junk) yard via a little old lady from Pasadena – unless that little old lady from Pasadena was the one who totalled the car that this transmission came from. The $4500 option of the rebuilt transmission will let you get 4 years+ out of the MPV. Is it worth the extra $2000 to drive the car for 4-5 years.

My Answer (may not appear in the teacher’s edition): I think I’ll put in the used transmission and sell the car. I’ll wait to sell it in the beginning of the school year when mini-vans sell better. Then I can take my money and get another newer model used car. My brother knows a guy who knows a guy who has a dealer license to buy at car auctions. I won’t be able to pick up the car, but I have a friend that I helped side his house that can go pick it up for a couple of tickets to a Twins game. Another buddy has season tickets to the Twins that I can get from him if I haul away an old granite counter top out of his house. I’ll need to get a vehicle at the auction that can haul around my family as well as a granite counter top. I bet I can sell the granite counter top on Craigslist. Unfortunately, my story problems never have one single right answer, but in the end everything adds up.

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